By Genni Burkhart
The Caribbean, Mexico, Costa Rica, Bali, Thailand, and Argentina – all top tropical travel destinations renowned for their sandy beaches, world-class resorts, delectable cuisines, endless sunshine, and breathtaking natural beauty. But there's a less apparent reason for their growing popularity among travelers: medical and dental tourism.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines medical tourism as travel to another country for medical treatment. Topping the list of the most common procedures undergone by medical tourists is dental care (general, restorative, and cosmetic).
Seeking Affordable Dental Care, Will Travel
The rising demand for medical tourism can be attributed to lower costs, receiving care from providers who share similar cultures and languages, and perhaps the riskiest – getting a procedure or therapy that is not approved or readily available in the U.S.
Most medical travel in the U.S. involves heading south to Mexico for dental treatment(1). If you're wondering why, look no further than the cost of root canals, where on average, the procedure in Mexico costs around $250, or 80% less than in the U.S.
U.S. dental care is pricey, especially for cosmetic or reconstructive work.
Americans continued to travel abroad for affordable dental care during the pandemic. As a result, 170,000 Americans traveled for dental procedures in 2020. In 2021, that number bounced back to 390,000 from the 470,000-pre-pandemic total in 2019(2).
Patients Beyond Borders, an internal medical tourism publication, reports that a total of 2.1 million Americans sought affordable medical care in 2019. They also estimate that the worldwide medical tourism market will grow at a rate of 15-25%, with the highest patient inflows in Mexico, Southeast, and South Asia(3).
Poor Dental Coverage Drives Demand
Historically, oral healthcare has been considered separate from medical care, undoubtedly with enormous consequences. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010, dental care for adults isn't currently included as an "essential health benefit." Most dental coverage is rudimentary at best, leaving more aging Americans without adequate dental coverage.
CareQuest Institute released data on oral health inequities in the U.S. in June 2022. Their 2nd annual State of Oral Health Equity in America survey found that 77 million adults in the U.S. did not have dental insurance. Recognized as the most comprehensive survey of its kind, disparities in oral health care for people of color, low-income, the uninsured, and veterans were the driving factor in the lack of affordable, accessible dental care in the U.S.(4).
Given the lack of dental insurance in the U.S. and lower costs elsewhere, Americans are increasingly willing to travel far from the stability and safety of home for dental procedures.
Alert: Precautions Issued
The biggest concern with dental tourism remains patient safety.
A growing hub for dental procedures, including low-cost veneers and "smile makeovers," Turkey welcomes an average of 150,000 to 250,000 dental tourists annually. However, a lack of quality control and regulations has raised international concerns. On December 22, 2022, the U.K. government issued a travel warning for Turkey* following the deaths of 22 British nationals who have traveled to the country for medical procedures since 2019. The warning suggests "extra care" is to be used when choosing medical care abroad. Furthermore, when seeking medical attention in Turkey, Britons are advised only to visit those clinics and hospitals authorized by the British Ministry of Health.
Many U.S. dentists also have cautionary tales when treating patients after dental vacations. Complications can arise from infections, antibiotic resistance, lack of follow-up care and treatment, improper dental training, or inadequate licensing and regulations. The results can include costly repairs, irreparable damage, pain, discomfort, disfiguration, bone, teeth, gum, and tissue loss, and "Chiclet Teeth" that are opaque, monochromatic, and excessively white, which gives a cheap and artificial appearance.
*In the United States, Turkey has a Level 2 travel advisory: Exercise Increased Caution, issued on October 4, 2022. However, at the time of this article, it's due to terrorism and arbitrary detentions, and not related to medical tourism.
While the results aren't always negative, dentists are left to treat dental tourism's wide-ranging effects on patients. Dental professionals are finding creative ways to help patients prioritize their needs, from dental discount plans to discounted services to expanding care plans that spread out the cost over an extended period. However, the affordability of dental care in America remains a complex issue that drives patients to seek dental care outside U.S. laws and regulations, where procedures are cheaper and sometimes riskier.
As Americans increasingly see dental tourism as a solution to their dental dilemmas, dentists must consider if this is a sustainable way for patients to get the safe dental procedures they need and deserve, as well as the lasting effects it will have on oral healthcare here at home.
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- Sand, Roger (2021, August 6). Americans Are Flocking To Other Countries For Medical Procedures. https://www.forbes.com/sites/rogersands/2021/08/06/americans-are-flocki…
- Grunebaum, Dan (2021, July 15). Medical Travel Rebounds: What to Know. https://healthcareinsider.com/medical-travel-rebounds-what-to-know-3670…
- Patients Beyond Borders, For the Media. https://www.patientsbeyondborders.com/media
- CareQuest Institute for Oral Health, State of Oral Health Equity in America 2022. https://www.carequest.org/SOHEA2022
Author: With over 13 years as a published journalist, editor, and writer Genni Burkhart's career has spanned politics, healthcare, law, business finance, technology, and news. She resides on the western shores of the idyllic Puget Sound where she works as the Editor in Chief for the Incisor at DOCS Education out of Seattle, WA.